General strike call from Occupy Oakland

After a vicious police assault and a mobilization that forced the city to retreat, Occupy Oakland has called for a general strike. Todd Chretien explains what comes next.

Members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 at an Oakland rally calling for justice for Oscar Grant (Oriana Bolden)Members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 at an Oakland rally calling for justice for Oscar Grant (Oriana Bolden)

AFTER RECLAIMING Oscar Grant Plaza in front of Oakland's City Hall, Occupy Oakland activists voted 1,484 to 46 to call for a general strike on Wednesday, November 2. "Don't go to work, walk out of school, say no to debt and austerity," are some of the slogans for the day.

The call for a general strike arose from the specific situation of the police attacks in Oakland--officers from the city's force and more than a dozen different departments unleashed a savage attack on Occupy protesters, causing critical injuries to one protester, a member of Veterans for Peace, who was struck in the head by a tear gas canister.

But the call for a day of action on November 2 is about more than Oakland--it is an important new step for the Occupy Wall Street protest movement around the country.

For the last two weeks, police and city officials from the East Coast to the West have become increasingly aggressive in their attempts to intimidate occupiers. If Occupy Oakland can turn back the police violence with a large action on November 2, then hopefully what happens in Oakland won't stay in Oakland.

As luck would have it, the last citywide general strike in the U.S. took place in Oakland in 1946. But can it happen again on just a week's notice?

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What would a general strike look like in Oakland?

First off, many Occupy Oakland activists realize there are big obstacles to overcoming years of demoralization and fear among workers and students, so participation in the November 2 call is bound to be uneven. But looking into Oakland's recent past gives us some clues about what is possible.

On May 1, 2006, tens of thousands of immigrant workers participated in the "Day Without an Immigrant" protests, marching down International Boulevard. It wasn't officially called a strike, but whole neighborhoods, especially the Latino sections in Fruitvale and East Oakland, poured out into the streets.

In 2009, when a BART police officer killed Oscar Grant III just after midnight on New Years Day, between 3,000 and 5,000 marchers, predominantly young African Americans, marched from City Hall to the County Courthouse, facing off with police for hours in exactly the same intersections where Occupy Oakland is marching today.

On March 4 of last year, thousands of Oakland public school students from grades K through 12, along with their teachers, school staff and parents, participated in a day of action against education budget cuts--along with thousands of community college and university students who walked out of classes and marched through their neighborhoods and campuses.

A wave of campus occupations swept through many Bay Area institutions of higher learning around that time to protest the cuts.

Oakland high school students have a powerful tradition of walking out of class to stand up for immigrant rights, funding for public education and affirmative action, and against police brutality.

So there are many recent precedents for filling the streets of Oakland to stand up for social justice.

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What about organized labor?

Will unions participate in the Occupy Oakland call for a general strike?

Oakland teachers are working under an imposed contract, rammed down their throats by Superintendent Tony Smith and the school board. This is the same school district leadership that voted on October 26 to close five elementary schools, despite the protests of hundreds of teachers, parents, students and a contingent of hundreds from Occupy Oakland.

The Oakland Education Association, which represents public school teachers, has made funds available to support Occupy Oakland. The union's executive board will meet on October 28 to decide what actions to take on November 2--activists are hoping for a strike call.

The most powerful union in Oakland is the dockworkers of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10. They control the giant Port of Oakland and the billions of dollars of merchandise that passes through there every week.

The ILWU had its beginnings in a general strike in San Francisco in 1934 that involved over 100,000 workers in dozens of industries.

Since then, the ILWU has had a long and proud history of taking job actions to defend their own wages and working conditions, but also in solidarity with other struggles, including protesting South African apartheid, the war in Iraq and the murder of Oscar Grant.

ILWU Local 6 represents warehouse workers in the East Bay, including a large group mostly immigrant recycling workers who work at Waste Management. When WM locked them out in 2007, along with Teamsters Local 70 garbage truck operators, they organized mass, militant picket lines that showed their potential power.

The East Bay hotel workers union UNITE HERE Local 2850 is one of the most active and militant unions in all of California. Max Alper, an organizer for the local, was snatched up by police when they raided Occupy Oakland--after he gave a speech widely circulated on YouTube.

Early on Wednesday morning, the Alameda Central Labor Council issued an emergency statement condemning the Oakland crackdown, reading in part:

Mayor Quan and the City Council are on the wrong side of history. It is clear that what occurred in Snow Park and Frank Ogawa Plaza this morning is nothing but silencing the voices and stomping out the rights of Americans. Participants of Occupy Wall Street are now in their ninth week of declaring that "we are the 99 percent" because our system is desperately, decisively out of whack--the top 1 percent is pocketing massive profits and dominating our politics while everyone else struggles to make ends meet.

The council was discussing what attitude to take towards the general strike call as this article was being written.

Across the Bay, San Francisco Central Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson rushed out a message of support for Occupy San Francisco when police threats against their encampment on the waterfront escalated. Paulson wrote: "We support your presence in San Francisco. People should and will raise their voices to oppose the banks, mortgage houses, corporations and the Republican Congress--all who are dismantling our Democracy and destroying our Jobs!"

The California Nurses Association, based in Oakland and a part of the newly formed National Nurses United, has a long record of standing up to bullying politicians. When former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to push them around, they mobilized tens of thousands of nurses to Sacramento and forced him to back down. In fact, the CNA has been planning for weeks for a mass demonstration and direct action in San Francisco's financial district for November 3.

Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the largest public employee union in the region, is headquartered in Oakland. Last year, a reform slate swept the union elections, and it has been attempting to take a more aggressive stance in bargaining against austerity and budget cuts by mobilizing and educating the rank and file.

And the list goes on--AFSCME university workers, UAW graduate students, community college faculty, building trades and Teamsters Local 70 members at the enormous UPS hub. As the saying goes, "Oakland is a union town."

But will it be possible to put this whole mass of workers into motion so quickly? The best way to look at the question is not what can't be done, but rather what can be done in the next six days.

The Alameda Labor Council could authorize its affiliated locals to participate in whatever way those locals see fit. It could make it clear that the council want its locals to turn out en masse for the rally in front of City Hall. Where official strikes are prohibited by clauses in contracts, there are always ways to work around those--and this just might be the time to ignore those clauses.

Rank-and-file workers and shop stewards should call meetings during lunches, break times and shift changes to discuss plans for participating. If your union leadership opposes the action or doesn't do anything to organize it, take matters into your own hands.

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Debate over strategy

Certainly there will be disagreement within the movement about how to organize. One central issue will be many union leaders' allegiance to the Democratic Party--and, of course, Mayor Jean Quan is a member.

Clarence Thomas, speaking as the national co-chair of the Million Worker March, a campaign initiated by the membership of ILWU Local 10 in 2004, addressed this debate inside the labor movement:

The call for a general strike by the General Assembly is indicative of the energy in the fightback now being carried out by the 99 percent--that is to say, by the workers. This is consistent with the actions taken by workers in Wisconsin who fought against Gov. Scott Walker's attacks on collective bargaining.

But as we saw there, those efforts were redirected by labor leaders loyal to the Democratic Party into recall efforts against Republican politicians. They want to avoid taking the fight to the point of production or services, but the rank and file want to take action. We have to appreciate how the Democratic Party has served as a shackle for the labor movement, and the labor movement has not yet broken free from it.

Asked if he thought this reality might short-circuit the general strike call on November 2, Thomas replied: "The call is appropriate, and Oakland will be shut down. I'll be there, and I'll be bringing as many people with me as possible."

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What you can do in the next six days

Tens of thousands of high school and college students study within easy marching distance of Oakland's City Hall. They can start planning now to build the November 2 general strike.

Churches can alert their congregations. Nonprofit organizations can phone-bank their members. Immigrant rights, anti-eviction, civil rights and youth organizations can call out their members.

We can go street to street and knock on doors, pass out thousands of leaflets on BART and AC Transit bus lines. We can ask small businesses to post notices in their windows and close up shop for the day on November 2. Whole families should come. Everyone can flood their social networks with the message. We can all make signs and banners.

It's been a long time since we've had a general strike in the United States, so this one won't be perfect. But if they can do it in France and South Africa and Chile and India and Greece, why can't we start learning how in Oakland?

At a minimum, it seems certain that we will march downtown in numbers so great that the police will have to back off from further attacks.

Bay Area residents tend to prefer staying on their side of the Bay, but this is the time to get over any geographical hang-ups. If you live anywhere from Sacramento to Richmond to Napa to San Francisco to San Jose to Santa Cruz or Watsonville, consider this an invitation to come spend the day with the 99 percent in Oakland.

Nationally, plans are in the works to make November 2 a national day of solidarity with Oakland.

November 2 won't be a total general strike, but it can represent an important step in building the fight against the 1 percent. And on November 3, we can assess how we did, and learn from what went right and what went wrong.

But over the next six days, we should do everything we can to mobilize the power of the 99 percent for a day of strikes and action on November 2.